Monday, 16 December 2013

Looking out for Orcas at Sea Lion Island – Dec. 12-14 (Alexandra, Melina & Frithjof)

Sea Lion Island is the southernmost inhabited island of the Falklands, a paradise-like place and nature reserve with amazing wildlife. It is considered as one of the most unique places in the world as within a total surface of 2,236 acres one can encounter Southern Sea Lion, Southern Elephant Seal, Orca; 4 different species of penguins (Gentoo, Magellanic, Rockhopper and King Penguin), but also the rare Striated Caracara, a bird of prey.

A FIGAS (Falkland Islands Government Air Service) flight with one of their characteristic, red BN Islander planes took us from Stanley Airport via Fox Bay (West Falkland) to Sea Lion Island. A very scenic, low-altitude flight, with some awesome views of the mountains west of Stanley with their characteristic stone runs of glacial origin, the Mount Pleasant Airbase (MPA), Darwin, Goose Green, Lafonia, the rugged coast on both sides of the Falkland Sound, the lovely twin village of Fox Bay, and then the remote shores of southern East Falkland, Speedwell Island and over a stretch of sea towards Sea Lion Island! The Falklands’ white beaches with turquoise waters look as splendid from the air as from the ground, but their colour certainly is deceptive as far as the temperatures are concerned.

We were once again greeted by the friendly and very hospitable staff of the Sea Lion Lodge as soon as we had landed on the island. Melina was the only member of our team who had never been to Sea Lion Island before. What really impressed her was the sight of a Gentoo Penguin colony right next to the lodge and all the noise they make. Sleeping here was definitely an experience itself, since the loud voices of the penguins were the last thing you hear as you drift into sleep; paradise indeed.

Unlike our previous visit in January 2013, our scientific diving team was not able to conduct any diving or snorkelling activity, due to the Orcas’ hunting season (November – December). Thankfully, this did not affect our work, since we managed to find the Maullinia-infected Durvillea antarctica that we were looking for, during a low tide search right at the beginning of our stay. As far as Sea Lion Island is concerned, this meant mission accomplished.

A documentary of the Orcas in Sea-Lion Island shows one of the places most commonly used by Orcas hunting for sea elephants and sea lions, the so-called Orca Pool. The Orca Pool is at the right end of a long beach were Elephant Seals usually rest. Waking up at 3:30 am was definitely challenging, but not unbearable since the thought of sighting Orcas was enough to energize us. The first morning was not so lucky for us, since no Orcas showed up, but that did not put us off, since the next morning at 4 am, we were again on the beach and immediately greeted by three Orcas, swimming next to the coast. With mixed feelings, we watched the Orcas moving outside of the “pool” trying to decide how to approach their prey. We were just observers of nature’s survival chain; the three Orcas finally managed to snatch one of the Elephant Seals in the sea. Immediately a lot of birds approached the site, looking for the remains of the kill. The Orcas left suddenly and everything was calm once again, with the Elephant Seals lying on the beach, or fighting with each other and the Magellanic Penguins passing by us to get into the sea for their morning food.

Shortly, a FIGAS flight will take us back to Stanley. Leaving this amazing wildlife paradise behind, pictures of Penguins, Elephant Seals, Sea Lions, Birds and the Orcas swimming in the sunrise, remain in our minds. In this remote place, on the southernmost edge of the Falkland Islands, where human activity is limited to three buildings and a small airplane strip, nature goes its way…

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